Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

Press Release: "The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone" (Chicago, April 2014)

The Deepest Human Life Cover Sometimes it seems like you need a PhD just to open a book of philosophy. We leave philosophical matters to the philosophers in the same way that we leave science to scientists. Scott Samuelson thinks this is tragic, for our lives as well as for philosophy. In The Deepest Human Life he takes philosophy back from the specialists and restores it to its proper place at the center of our humanity, rediscovering it as our most profound effort toward understanding, as a way of life that anyone can live. Exploring the works of some of history’s most important thinkers in the context of the everyday struggles of his students, he guides us through the most vexing quandaries of our existence—and shows just how enriching the examined life can be.

Samuelson begins at the beginning: with Socrates, working his most famous assertion—that wisdom is knowing that one knows nothing—into a method, a way of approaching our greatest mysteries. From there he springboards into a rich history of philosophy and the ways its journey is encoded in our own quests for meaning. He ruminates on Epicurus against the sonic backdrop of crickets and restaurant goers in Iowa City. He follows the Stoics into the cell where James Stockdale spent seven years as a prisoner of war. He spins with al-Ghazali first in doubt, then in the ecstasy of the divine. And he gets the philosophy education of his life when one of his students, who authorized a risky surgery for her son that inadvertently led to his death, asks with tears in her eyes if Kant was right, if it really is the motive that matters and not the consequences. Through heartbreaking stories, humanizing biographies, accessible theory, and evocative interludes like “On Wine and Bicycles” or “On Zombies and Superheroes ,” he invests philosophy with the personal and vice versa. The result is a book that is at once a primer and a reassurance—that many have trod the earth before us, and they have insights into our very souls. 

William B. Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life

“Scott Samuelson is a philosopher with a knack for storytelling.  As a result, The Deepest Human Life is a book that humanizes philosophy and that relates grand philosophical themes to the lives of ordinary people. Not only that, but Samuelson writes in a manner that ordinary people—meaning those without a philosophical background—will find inviting. Readers will come away with a better understanding of some of philosophy’s fundamental concepts and in many cases will also have taken important first steps toward conducting an examination of their own lives.”

Christopher Merrill, author of The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War

The Deepest Human Life is a splendid book for students, writers, philosophers, and anyone interested in exploring the human condition. Samuelson wears his considerable learning lightly, addressing the enduring questions—What is philosophy? What is happiness? What is the nature of good and evil?—in an engaging and accessible manner, reminding readers that the quest for meaning is indeed a matter of life and death. What a marvelous professor he must be. And what good luck to have his wisdom here on the page.”

Stephen T. Asma, author of Against Fairness

The Deepest Human Life is charming and upbeat, but it’s also very poignant in places. Samuelson weaves his personal story of teaching at a community college into the philosophical adventure and shows how philosophy is an approach to life—a practice of self-knowing and self-forgetting—rather than a professional career. The result is a unique introduction to philosophy, composed with a rare voice of humane literary sophistication.”

Pre-order your copy on Amazon

IAI Video: Thinking the Unthinkable

croppedimage608342-thinking-the-unthinkablePhilosophy News recently has been introduced to a website with some intriguing videos on philosophy as well as science, politics, and art. This London-based organization is producing  high-quality content that is will inform in an engaging and entertaining way. Here is their mission from their website:

The Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI) is committed to fostering a progressive and vibrant intellectual culture in the UK. We are a charitable, not-for-profit organisation engaged in changing the current cultural landscape through the pursuit and promotion of big ideas, boundary-pushing thinkers and challenging debates.

This sample video features hosts Hannah Dawson, Mark Rowlands, Simon Saunders. Robert Rowland-Smith and focuses on the following topic: The power of our thought has transformed the world, and some claim a theory of everything is just around the corner. Others see limits to understanding, things we cannot think. Is there a richer world that lies beyond thought, or is this an empty mysticism that leads nowhere?

The Panel

Oxford philosopher Simon Saunders, international bestselling author Mark Rowlands and historian of ideas Hannah Dawson attempt to say what some believe cannot be said.

Get To Know Versatile PhD

VersatilePhD_logoWe at Philosophy News recently have had the pleasure of being introduced to and getting to know Dr. Paula Chambers, Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition, Founder of WRK4US (1999) and The Versatile PhD (2010). Her website, The Versatile PhD has a wealth of information for those pursuing graduate work in a variety of disciplines and is worth checking out if you're in academia as a student or professor, you're advising those working towards a graduate degree, or if you're consider graduate work. Dr. Chambers describes her mission this way:

The Versatile PhD is a web-based, woman-owned, socially positive business that helps universities provide graduate students with non-academic professional development. Our mission is to help graduate students identify, prepare for, and excel in possible non-academic careers.

We want graduate students to be informed about academic employment realities, educated about their non-academic career options, and supported in preparing for a wide range of careers, so that in the end, they have choices. The key concept here is versatility: the ability to apply skills, abilities and interests in a wide variety of positions and fields.

In our brief interaction with Dr. Chambers we've found her to be the real thing. She's caring, tenacious about helping those who need it, and aggressive about accuracy in her data and attention to detail. While we're just getting to know the site and its manager, we think this resource can be extremely valuable to anyone involved in higher education. We've also found a kindred spirit. Our Placement Reports are designed to help prospective students better prepare for graduate school and the job market and Dr. Chamber's work aligns perfectly with this goal.

Check out the site at The Versatile PhD. Learn more about Paula and her team here.

Review of Caputo’s Philosophy in Transit

Tim Crane reviews the book for the Times Literary Supplement.

Caputo is quite right, of course, that we apply the idea of truth to things other than propositions. We speak of true friends, living in truth, and the true – along with the good and the beautiful – being the objects of the search for wisdom, and so on. These ideas cannot easily be reconfigured in terms of the truth of propositions. To attempt this would be like objecting to Keats’s remark that beauty is truth by pointing out that there are many true propositions which are not beautiful.

On Philip Seymour Hoffman

I was saddened today by the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. There was a broad reaction both in the news and on social media. There was praise, shock, and sorrow. Someone on Facebook oddly noted that this is another bad sign for 2014 while another, a  religious conservative, used the event to evangelize. Even in light of the tremendous Super Bowl win by my hometown Seahawks this evening, I found the death of one of my favorite actors an odd juxtaposition and one that was very much a part of my consciousness all day. The obvious comparison might be that the victory by the Seahawks represents success. The football team showed tremendous discipline, they functioned as a team going deep on their roster to pull out the win. The QB is a professed Christian thanking God for the opportunity to play with the media talking about the bright futures of all the players, the coach, and the team praising their hard work and unrelenting purpose. This is an organization of individuals coming together to be the best at what they do and pulling it off.

Hoffman, who apparently died of an overdose alone in his Manhattan apartment seems the antithesis of this success. Overcome by whatever demons were chasing him, he left this world on what many might rightly say "the bottom." The money and fame apparently were not enough. In the end he was taken out by a needle that, as far as we know, was being used to silence some unspoken pain or existential angst.

But my thoughts did not immediately go there. While Hoffman's passing is upsetting, I have an overall sense of gratitude and found myself actually envying his accomplishments rather than fixating on his death. I suppose my mind goes there first because of this almost indisputable fact: he left us something great and he used his finely-honed skill as an actor to show us something about the world and about ourselves. That's not trivial. Few of us, even if we live to a ripe old age, will have either the talent or the opportunity to do what he did. Spending decades on this planet is certainly something we all hope and strive for. But as I age, I'm less convinced that it's the number of years we live that really matter in the end and life is more about how we use the years we have. Yes, that sounds like something you'd see on a motivational poster but there is something substantial there I think. 

I watched the game with friends and family and Hoffman's death came up. We discussed how a man who clearly seemed to have skills that far exceeded many of his peers and the ability to get to the root of the human condition could be so "disturbed" as to take his own life by giving it over to substance abuse. But we noted that this so often is the case with artists and philosophers. Those who have the ability to see more deeply and are able to unearth the frailties of the human condition so acutely tend to be much less able to paper over them with all the adornments and facades that are used with such aplomb by the rest of us.

While I admittedly know very little about what Hoffman was dealing with (he may have well just loved or become addicted to being high and went too far), there is a thread of truth to the idea that many who go out the way of Hoffman did haven't given up, they've given in. They haven't bypassed the despair that seems so inevitable but they've gone headlong into it. Some figure out how to make it through (or better, live in the midst of it) but many don't. Still, it is the embrace of despair that gives the artist and philosopher the power to see it for what it truly is and provides that unique lens for examining the human condition. In films like Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and Synecdoche, New York Hoffman explores the side of being human that leads to despair and we know as we watch that he really gets it. There's something authentic there. You don't get those insights by reading self-help books or watching a lot of reality television shows.

Which is the better life?  Russell Wilson is a football player who appears to be at the top of his game at 26, who loves God, his family, and his team, who visits children at a local hospital and gives to the needy and Hoffman is an artist who died alone at 46 with a needle in his arm and left the world deep insights into our nature and who brings us to the edge of despair so we can peek inside. This is not an answerable question of course because "the good life," whatever that may mean, is both person-specific and complex beyond what any course-grained analysis could possibly penetrate. But to ask the question is at least to say that an answer isn't cut and dried.

A colleague who watched the game with us sent me a short blog post in which the author, Alissa Wilkinson, attempts to reflect on Hoffman's influence on her life. She has more familiarity with Hoffman's stage work than I do and her insights resonated with me (and inspired me to write this). She observes,

In Hoffman's performances (from Along Came Polly to Capote to Synecdoche to Mission Impossible to the entire PT Anderson oeuvre and everything besides), I always had the keen sense that this was not "just acting" to him. He was, emphatically, not a movie star. Acting was less job, more vocation or calling, almost a cross to bear, as wild as that may sound. He said as much in interviews - talked about how painful the work was to him, how it hurt to inhabit another person that way.

Well said. Great art and the best philosophy, when it attempts to be authentic, is a cross, a burden. It demands that its creator not take the easy way out. You have to embrace the subject matter entirely, darkness and light. And this may mean (and generally seems to mean) that what comes out of the other side of the creative process is not going to be popular or "palatable" to a larger audience. It may mean one ends up alone—or at least more alone than one otherwise would be—perhaps misunderstood, and most certainly rejected at some level. For few of us have the stomach to see our worst parts as they are with no adornments or sugar coating. When one truly comes to understand that, it's impossible not to view "populist" as compromise. The dilemma then truly becomes an ugly one: authentically stay true to the craft and all it demands or inauthentically create what people will consume. Either may lead to despair because neither gives us everything.

Hoffman may have been at just this fork in the road. Certainly many other artists have been. I only wish he could have figured out how to live another day to show us a way through. Maybe in what he left us, he already has.

Thanks to Ben Olsen for the link.

You Mad Bro? Philosophers Have No Answer

manfoldedarmsSeattle, WA – In a stunning act of silence, philosopher Josiah Crandall had absolutely nothing to say about the growing and disturbing trend of unsportsmanlike conduct by professional athletes. Richard Sherman's recent post-game rant against San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree and his "choking gesture" directed at quarterback Colin Kaepernick is just the latest in a string of professional athletes acting like high school prima donnas. The trend has mothers everywhere very upset. "I'm very upset!" said Melinda Sizemore of Auburn, Washington, "It's just very upsetting." Worried about the negative influence on her kids and the risk of "copycat behavior" by her boys, Sizemore started Bringing Our Rage Everywhere Deliberately (or B.O.R.E.D.) as an activist organization with the express goal of demonstrated how angry she and her fellow moms are at this "further sign of the moral degradation" of our society. "What type of a world are we living in when my 6 year old can't watch grown men knock the bloody hell out of each other on daytime TV without being exposed to smack talk and dirty looks?" she said.

Crandall, a professor of moral philosophy at Washington University, has been been notably silent on the issue. "Really?" he was tweeted as saying to his class of freshmen Intro to Ethics students. He recently published an article for the New York Times in which the conduct of professional athletes was addressed not at all. Instead Crandall chose to write about abstract issues relating to free will and moral action. In an interview on Fox News, he was asked about the influence the poor conduct of celebrity sports figures has on the youth of America and appeared not to hear the question. A noticeably frustrated Megyn Kelly pressed, "Don't you think something ought to be done? Isn't it true that public figures like Richard Sherman and McKayla Maroney contribute to the corruption of our Christian youth?" Crandall simply responded with a look of professorial incredulity. "You hate the youth of our country, don't you?" Kelly finally said in exasperation.McKayla_Maroney

Sociologist Brine Zimmerman of Wazoo Solipsist Academy (located in a state that asked not to be named) said this lack of philosophical interest on issues that clearly affect our culture is a dangerous trend. "Say something, anything." she encouraged. "Philosophers like Crandall just continue to marginalize the discipline." she noted. She argues that moms have always had irrational worries about their kids and moms determine what their kids study. If philosophers don't start caring about what parents care about, they won't have any students in their classes. This will inevitably lead to philosophy as a discipline becoming less mainstream. "And if Wazoo had a philosophy program, you can be sure as hell that the philosophers who would have taught in that program would probably care about that." said a wide-eyed Zimmerman.

Despite the overwhelming pressure from parents, Philosophers generally seem non-plussed. Nothing about the issue can be heard in philosophy classes being taught across the country. Instead, professors continue to focus on mundane topics like the meaning of life, what can we know, the meaning of right and wrong, and the nature of existence. In our research, we found a logic website that we thought had finally addressed the issue by creating the "No True Sherman" fallacy but later determined it was a misreading of the more common "No True Scotsman" fallacy. In a clear sign of the times, we found a group of philosophers in the mid-west that had not even watched the NFC championship game and were completely unaware of the Sherman trash talk. "We don't have a TV." one said.

Given this deafening silence by the philosophical community, we can only guess that philosophers everywhere would say that parents should protect their kids from bad behavior by turning off the TV, keeping them out of school sports programs, and teaching them the virtues. "Love and hope should be the message we send our children, not pout and 'choke.'" we can imagine them saying. We asked professor Crandall if this is what he'd say were he to say anything. He has not yet responded to our email.

What Do Philosophy and Ukulele Rock Have In Common?

Essentially nothing. But even philosophers need a musical interlude once in a while. A good friend plays the cajón in this band who turns ukulele music on it's ear (that's a good thing). I think you'll enjoy their latest video. Take a quick break from your philosophizing and show The Seattle Castaways some love. 

The Seattle Castaways playing American Idiot

You can get more of their music and buy their newest CD at their website.

Graduate Degree Job Survey: Debt and Earnings

Former professor and blogger Karen L. Kelsey (she blogs at The Professor Is In) has conducted  a survey of graduates from various professions and their experience in the job market after graduation. She asks respondents about their undergraduate and graduate debt, the field they studied, reasons for the loans, payback plans, and whether they are employed among other things. Her data is raw and it doesn't appear that she's done much analysis on it but you can still get a sense of the type of financial situation in which her respondents find themselves. The work aligns to what Philosophy News has  been working on with our Placement Reports. Our reports focus on the data compiled by institutions while Kelsey's data attempts to gather information from the graduates themselves. She currently has compiled over 1300 responses.

Since anyone can take the survey and the data does not appear to be scrubbed, the survey should be correlated with other reports and background information to validate it's integrity. The responses are uneven in places, and the survey methodology leaves many open questions (for example, how are single students identified in the data? Was the debt incurred total educational debt or debt just from a single program? Can respondents fill out the survey more than once and how does that affect debt totals? Are the respondents biased towards bad post-graduate experiences? and the like) Still, it's an interesting view into the what the debt/earnings ratio has been for people getting a higher education, and, when correlated with other data and some analysis, could prove helpful.

Survey results are here (spreadsheet format). The data on for respondents that studied philosophy ranges from row 970 to row 1008.

You can take the survey here.

Read more at The Professor Is In.

Thanks to Stan Dokupil for the links

We Did It! Thank You!

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New Book from OUP: Causation

Press release: New from Oxford University Press

CAUSATION: A Very Short Introduction

by: Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum

Causation is the most fundamental connection in the universe. Without it, there would be no science or technology. There would be no moral responsibility either, as none of our thoughts would be connected with our actions and none of our actions with any consequences. Nor would we have a law system because blame resides only in someone having caused damage.

Any intervention we make in the world around us is premised on there being causal connections that are, to a degree, predictable. It is causation that is at the basis of prediction and also explanation. This Very Short Introduction introduces the key theories of causation and also the surrounding debates and controversies.

About the Authors:
Stephen Mumford is Professor of Metaphysics at the Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts. He has written several books on this topic.

Rani Lill Anjum is Research Fellow at the Norwegian University of Life Science where she leads the Causation in Science research project (CauSci). CauSci is a global network for those interested in a scientifically informed philosophy of causation. She has written many popular articles in magazines and newspapers and delivered numerous talks for non-specialist audiences.

Click the image to purchase the book on Amazon.

Philosopher Spotlight

Conversations with philosophers, professional and non-professional alike.
Visit our podcast section for more interviews and conversations.

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Dr. Robert McKim
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  • Professor of Religion and Professor of Philosophy
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Dr. Peter Boghossian
  • on faith as a cognitive sickness
  • Teaches Philosophy at Portland State University (Oregon)
  • Focuses on atheism and critical thinking
  • Has a passion for teaching in prisons
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